Friday, January 27, 2006

Should This Marriage Be Saved?

When Leonard Block died in November at 93, the obituaries mentioned his leadership of the large drug company that bears his family name and also his philanthropy, including as a former treasurer of Lincoln Center. Scant mention was made of his Jewish communal involvement, perhaps because it occurred many years ago. I knew him a bit in the 1970's, thanks to my close friend, William T. Golden, then and still at 95 one of America's great public servants. Mr. Block was active in Federation, but that would soon end because he was strongly opposed to its merger with the United Jewish Appeal. He did not want Federation to change its identity.

That merger resulted in the loss of UJA's identity. Whatever its financial consequences - a question that must remain speculative - at a time when droves of American Jews were on a path away from Jewish identity, one of our primary symbols was jettisoned. This was a symbol that had resonated among American Jews, especially in times of crisis for Israel, as in 1967 and 1973. The Federation-UJA marriage was not made in heaven.

It was symptomatic of the federation mentality that had gripped organized American Jewry since the early 1900's, the idea being to bring together Jewish hospitals, charities, child care agencies, senior programs and educational initiatives. This would result in greater coordination and, in turn, there would be fundraising and programmatic benefits. Although New York was among the last to join, the federation movement carried the day. We now have more than one-hundred federations.

For a while, the concept seemed to work, as large donors channeled their gifts via federation, which in turn launched major capital campaigns that benefited constituent agencies. This process continues to work in some communities, mainly those that are medium or small-sized and are experiencing continued Jewish population growth. In older communities, the story is one of a tired marriage, of going through the motions because while it was relatively easy to federate, there is no ready formula for a divorce.

Over the past generation, the federation concept has been undermined, especially in New York. Hospitals had been a cornerstone of the system and also the recipients of the largest allocations, yet the arrangement unraveled as nearly all of the operating income for hospitals now comes from third-party reimbursement, primarily Medicare, Medicaid and private health plans. Other constituent agencies have also found that what federation can offer covers a shrinking share of their budgets.

When our society moved away from the idea and ideal of the melting pot and embraced the notion of ethnic identity, federations responded to the new Jewish activism by channeling a greater share of grants to more parochial Jewish causes. In turn, this move alienated some major givers who, as a consequence of their personal assimilation were moving away from parochialism. At about the same time, the federation world was confronted by a new challenge as a growing cohort of super-rich Jews who remained committed to Jewish identity established private foundations that became the primary conduits for their significant philanthropy. Federations were being hit in both directions and they were being deprived of financial support, as well of people of vision and creativity.

Federations are not in the poorhouse. They sit on billions of dollars in endowment funds and while much of this cache is restricted, the sums will continue to grow from new bequests. Federations obviously cannot do all that they are asked to do or want to do, but financial limitations are not their major limitation. There is a lack of freshness, as bureaucratic imperatives, including rounds of meaningless meetings and conferences, dominate the work of senior staff. What creativity there is finds expression in fundraising and public relations. The federation world is largely anachronistic and imbued with unmerited self-importance. There is no way to favorably compare this world with what is evident in the far more creative world of private Jewish philanthropy.

Are we permanently bound to a tired arrangement that each year produces a hugely expensive yet fundamentally irrelevant extravaganza known as the General Assembly? We probably are wed to the system because the path of least resistance is to maintain this Humpty Dumpty rather than to take it apart. Like conventional marriages that are preserved because the alternative may be worse, we may be stuck with the federation model even though it provides little synergy or energy.

Still, if the powers that be have the capacity to be creative, they might explore alternative approaches, beginning with recreating a centralized and direct fundraising mechanism on behalf of Israel. The aim would not be so much to raise additional funds, although that would be important, as to buttress a connection between American Jewry and Israel along the lines advanced by Birthright Israel. In addition to what Birthright accomplishes among younger Jews, there is evidence that it has an impact on the participants' parents and families.

On the domestic front, since there is no prospect that federations will go out of business, at least not any time soon, the best that it can hope for is that they would be less bureaucratic, less expensive to run, less immersed in meaningless meetings and events and more focused on what can be done to foster meaningful Jewish identity. Federations should downsize. They should have smaller staffs and far less overhead. They should concentrate their resources on institutions and activities - education and outreach are foremost - that cannot count on public funding.

Inertia is a presence in all organizations, yet change is inevitable. Nearly all of the Jewish leaders whom I have spoken to over the last generation know that the federation system is in deep trouble. Instead of challenging what is wrong from the inside, they have calculated that they can make a greater contribution from the outside. This is understandable. It is also unfortunate.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Where Have All the Rabbis Gone?

Rabbis Kenneth Brander and Ronald Schwartzberg are terrific people and among the best pulpit rabbis in America. That sounds good, but it isn't right. Each was a top-notch Rabbi, one in Boca Raton and the other in Highland Park. They no longer serve their congregations because they are now at Yeshiva University's new Center for the Jewish Future, one more project in a crowded field of institutions that aim to improve Jewish life. As the ranks of such projects continue to grow, American Jewish life continues to deteriorate. The institutions that can do the most good - shuls and schools - are losing talented people.

What is happening in synagogue life is occurring in day schools. The New Jersey Jewish News recently reported that the principal of the Solomon Schechter School in East Brunswick would be leaving at the end of the school year after two years on the job, while the head of the much larger Solomon Schechter in Caldwell and West Orange was leaving in the middle of his first year. Similar reports are coming from day schools across the country. With so many job changes, it is hard to keep up with the game of musical chairs. I am about to begin a survey of day school principals, the purpose being to get data on job satisfaction and longevity.

Why is there so much moving around and why are rabbis leaving pulpit positions altogether? Greener pastures - or what appear to be greener pastures - is an obvious factor. There is more to the story. In day schools and particularly in the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox sectors, principals' salaries have soared, at times eclipsing by a wide margin what public school principals are paid in the same communities. My impression is that congregational salaries have also risen quite a bit.

The ready explanation is that the job has become too difficult, too stressful. In a May speech at the convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, I described how social change has affected the Rabbinate. There is already too much on rabbinical plates and more is being added because of technological and social developments. Cell phones, email, Blackberries and pagers mean that congregants can instantaneously be in touch with their rabbis, often asking questions or conveying information that demands, in a sense, a quick response or action. There is a parallel growth in the number of events rabbis are expected to attend and an even greater explosion in pastoral duties, arising in large measure from changing family circumstances, including the greater incidence of divorce and relationship issues. If only because of family size, the situation is more acute in the Orthodox rabbinate.

The increase in lifespan adds to the burden. We hear much about the sandwich generation, about middle-aged parents who have responsibilities that encompass their parents and children. The new reality, notably in Orthodox life, is of four-generation families, a development that brings more work to already overburdened rabbis who must also lecture, teach classes, participate in communal activities and also try to be husbands and fathers.

In short, rabbis are overworked in 24/7 jobs. More than a few feel underappreciated and/or tormented by congregants who mistake their rabbis for a punching bag. So they leave (some are told to leave) and go to another shul or leave the Rabbinate. Who can blame anyone who wants to recapture Shabbos as a day of rest?

What is occurring among rabbis and principals echoes patterns in other professions, notably law and medicine, as job satisfaction has declined and job switching is on the increase. A new job may be the best route and perhaps only route for meaningful salary increases and better working conditions.

I do not know what motivated Rabbis Brander and Schwartzberg. What I sense is that changes in Jewish communal and philanthropic life are contributing handsomely to pulpit abandonment as the emergence of a formidable class of superrich Jews who are devoted to our community and want to make their mark has resulted in a network of private foundations and projects aimed at accomplishing meritorious goals.

There is a lot of philanthropic money floating around and rather than spend it on schools and projects that directly do good, the instinct is to reinvent the wheel and this begets the necessity to recruit staff. Is there a better hunting ground than shuls and schools? Why not go after the best, offering good salaries and good working conditions that include many dinner meetings, conferences and conventions and interaction with interesting people? There is also the promise that by taking the bait, those who are recruited will accomplish wonders for the Jewish people. When will they ever learn?

When Yeshiva University seeks to fill top positions, it is logical to look at the best among its rabbinical alumni as the answer to its prayers. But in the process, it is adding to the loss being experienced at the congregational level. When shuls lose the likes of Kenny Brander and Ronnie Schwartzberg, there is a continuing deficit in what is available to serve rank and file Jews. With sincere respect to both rabbis, I cannot escape the conclusion that they would make a larger contribution to the Jewish future by continuing to serve congregations.

If only because rabbis and principals, like other professionals, operate in what is substantially a free market, there isn't much prospect that these and other cautionary words will reverse the trend. As additional projects to promote Jewish continuity come courting, there will be additional raids on shuls and schools and the best talent will not be able to resist what is being proffered. Is it possible to plead with those who are eager to make offers that rabbis and principals cannot refuse to show greater restraint?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

RJJ Newsletter - The Internet and Rabbinic Bans

Unlike other of our handiwork that may have ethical implications - medical advances and design of clothing come to mind - technological innovations inherently are ethically neutral. Much of what we now take for granted is little more than tiny chips that have the capacity to contain an astounding amount of information or to perform complicated tasks in no more than the blink of an eye. How technology is used is another matter.

As a rule, technology that is utilized for visual purposes poses a greater challenge to religious sensibilities than technology that is aural. The ready explanation is that what the eye sees has a significantly greater impact on behavior and attitudes than what is merely heard. This is akin to the familiar Talmudic principle, lo t'hei shmiah gedolah mi-re'ah. Hearing is less reliable than seeing.

This may explain why certain innovations that may be problematic from a religious Jewish standpoint do not evoke strong negative reactions. The cell phone which is now indispensable to most of us is also a frequent instrumentality for improper midos, as when it interrupts tefila. It is addictive and results in the enormous waste of time or bitul and (along with conventional telephones), it is a great catalyst for lashon hara. However, rabbinical hackles were raised only when cell phones became Internet accessible.

Because they are visual, movies and televisions are regarded as off limits by rabbinical authorities. Apart from their addictive capacity, it is easy to get along without watching any movies or television. They are diversions and nothing more. We can also get by without reading the daily newspaper and while we may know less as a consequence, what we are missing is nearly always tangential to what we must know and do.

The computer and Internet are different. Of course, they can be dispensed with, yet the universe of people who do not rely on the Internet is shrinking rapidly as the younger generation which is computer literate replaces the older generation whose literacy in this regard is often limited. This is evident even in Orthodox circles, as it is everywhere else. The Internet is indispensable to most people in business and for lawyers and other professionals. Teachers rely on it, as do students. It is a key source for needed medical information, a money and time saver for shoppers and it is vital for air travel. Before long, the Internet may be the primary means of making telephone calls. Each day, bright people are figuring out how to expand its vital uses.

Too many have also figured out how to put the Internet to less than admirable uses. There is a gray zone occupied by bloggers and by a certain genre of entrepreneurs and there is a far darker zone comprised of those who convey totally offensive material that is at once repulsive and yet also exciting to young people and many adults. There has been an explosion of such material and it has been abetted by a culture of permissiveness and the inability to constrain the Internet within national boundaries.

What is evident is that we face a serious problem. Younger people, especially teenagers, are vulnerable, as are many adults. We are faced with a destructive phenomenon that can enter the core of people's lives and alter their behavior. For religious Jews, the danger posed by the Internet may be greater still and while this may seem incongruous in view of the standards within Orthodox life, the explanation is that because we adhere to a moral code that proscribes immodesty, the intrusion into one's life of such material can be jarring and transformative, impelling those who are influenced to abandon entirely the values and standards that they were taught.

The easy part is to condemn that which is hostile to our way of life. The far more difficult issue is to determine what to do about a technological conveyer of what is highly improper when that same technology is utilized to help us do what is beneficial in our lives. It's pat to say that we should ban the whole kit and caboodle, starting with the ordinary computer. The strategy of throwing out the baby with the bathwater cannot be effective in a business and societal environment that mandates access to the information and tasks available via the Internet.

We can hope that one day courts and society will come to their senses and cease putting a constitutional stamp of approval on material that is far more harmful to far many more people than dozens of items on the Food and Drug Administration's forbidden list. There is little prospect that this will happen soon, even with world-wide opprobrium and criminal charges directed at the purveyors and viewers of child pornography. We have yet to sufficiently recognize how harmful pornography is to the children who serve as viewers.

Our options are therefore limited. Technology to restrict what can be accessed has been developed. While apparently it is not totally effective, improvements are being made, and together with parental determination to establish firm rules regarding where computers are placed and how and when they can be used by children, we should be able to attain a comfort level regarding the availability of inappropriate material.

This is not good enough for yeshivas and Beth Jacobs in Lakewood. They have decreed that the Internet is entirely forbidden and parents who transgress this decree will suffer the expulsion of their children from the schools. This isn't the first time that such a policy has been adopted; as with its predecessors, with all due respect to the Rabbis and educators who are its architects, this is not the way to go.

The new policy allows - because it must - exceptions for parents who can show just cause for Internet access in their homes and who will install the proper controls. This inevitably means that there will be loopholes exploited by some parents, while other parents may well pursue the path of deception, which is the usual outcome when something that is useful is banned. At the end of the day, the parents and their children who will be most affected will be those who are most truthful.

This protest against what I regard as a wrongful policy should not be misread as a justification of wrongful behavior. The Internet is not going away. More and more
people in our community will utilize it because it is increasingly required to get done what people need to get done. We must not target children because we have problems with the Internet and we must avoid the halachically and ethically dubious notion that we can so easily expel students from our schools. Not long ago, our schools focused on the mission of bringing children closer to Torah and mitzvos. It is painful that those who set policies for the yeshiva world are finding justifications for keeping children out of our schools. We are moving away from the great goal of kiruv rechokim to the ignoble principle of richuk kerovim. The children who we throw out or reject are out of sight and out of mind and we blissfully continue on our self-congratulatory path, proclaiming that we are people of chesed and goodness. This is the most disheartening development that I have experienced in half a century of involvement in Torah education.

What the Lakewood schools have done needs to be challenged, lest what is toxic spreads. We must not be fearful. Last May I protested in this space against the refusal of certain Lakewood schools to admit applicants whose fathers commit the unpardonable sin of working. This wrongful attitude came to a crisis point at the start of this school year when a significant number of female students had no school that would accept them. Fortunately, Israeli Torah leaders mandated that Lakewood's Beth Jacobs could not open until all of the applicants were placed. Is it possible that the Internet policy is meant to circumvent this ruling by finding a "legitimate" way of excluding students?

Instead of following the well-trodden path of issuing bans, our rabbis and educators should deal with the obviously troubling consequences of Internet access by teaching and emphasizing how restraint and prudence can reduce and perhaps eliminate the potential harm to children. Inadvertently, the employment of harsh measures conveys a lack of faith in the ability of our schools and community, as well as our parents, to properly guide our children.

I hope that those who have authored the expulsion policy will reflect on their handiwork and will pull back. The process of reflection might begin with a clause in the frequently cited Mishnah in Sanhedrin that speaks of the merit of saving a single Jewish life. The next statement, which is rarely quoted, teaches that he who destroys a single Jewish life is as if he has destroyed the entire world.

Where is Chabad Heading - II

For all that makes it distinctive or makes it think that it is distinctive, Chabad cannot escape the realities facing American and world Jewry. These include massive and continuing Judaic abandonment and the consequences of intermarriage which multiply with each passing generation. Yet, an avowedly religious movement seems to think that it can operate as if these realities do not compromise what it is doing, do not limit what it can do. Chabad fought fiercely on the "Who Is a Jew?" issue in Israel, while in the Former Soviet Union - where it does much great work - which now has an intermarriage rate of 80%, it spreads its wings wider, acting as if this statistic has few implications. It is important to ask what Chabad is seeking to accomplish if four out of five Jews are marrying out, this after decades of high intermarriage under the Soviets. It is also important to ask what Chabad has accomplished if four out of five Jews continue to marry out.

In challenging Chabad to reflect on these questions, I am not unmindful of the enormous good that it does in providing an array of services, both religious and social. I cannot see how Chabad is exempt from the obligation of self-examination, particularly in light of what is happening in the places where it is most heavily concentrated. A continuation of current demographic trends, which I think is inevitable, means that Chabad will either have to abandon much of what it is now doing or undergo a significant character change.

The movement's decentralization contributes to the avoidance of reflection. During the Rebbe's life and even now, when we look at photos of Chabad emissaries or shlichim, the picture is one of a centralized movement led by its elders. In the field, the reality of decentralization sets in, along with the profile of a great number of younger men and women in key positions. These shlichim have undergone from their teens an education that is more experiential than intellectual or imbued in religious texts. There is much travel, attendance for relatively brief periods at Chabad seminaries across the globe and networking with present and future shlichim.

What emerges are confident young people eager to take responsibility at a remarkably young age. These men and women have acquired street smarts and skills that will avail them in the field when they come into contact with people of little or no religiosity. What few of them get is a strong grounding in Jewish texts or the capacity to reflect.

This is a brew for ad hoc Judaism or perhaps it should be called ahalachic Judaism. The result is a pattern not seen for a long while in Jewish life, although it appears in other religions. There is a wide and growing behavioral disparity between the clergy and laity. This suits the emissaries and their families who can live as Orthodox Jews and engage in the work that they are deeply committed to and it suits a large majority of lay people who somehow are involved in Chabad because they can comfortably continue their minimalistic Jewish lifestyle, including intermarriage and driving to shul on Shabbos. I doubt that this arrangement accords with the way Chabad operated elsewhere in previous periods.

Under the Rebbe's tutelage there is a sincere emphasis on certain observances such as women lighting Shabbos candles and men putting on tefilin, the message being that the occasional performance of these mitzvos or even just once is religiously meaningful. These observances make minimal demands and do not require lifestyle changes. They appeal to the comfort level of Jews who have moved away from a religious life. This is evident in California and Florida where Chabad is especially strong and appeals to ex-Israelis and their families.

I do not know whether in a transcendental sense the one-time or occasional performance of a mitzvah is redemptive. I recognize that it may be. Yet, the contribution to Jewish continuity is negligible. In an unintended way, Jews are being told that our religion requires very little. What is being transmitted in the process is not our heritage or code of laws but the familiar embracing of instant gratification.

Perhaps this is the way to go. But perhaps in view of Chabad's enormous and expanding reach, a greater effort to impose standards would result in a higher incidence of religious commitment. It is necessary to point out, as I did last week, that in their day schools and certain synagogues there is a greater commitment to religious purposefulness. Overall, there is the impression that Chabad is today less of an outreach movement whose goal is religious transformation than it is a missionary movement whose goal is to attract participants on their terms and not on the terms of traditional Judaism.

The implications of this operating theology are immense and they raise daunting questions that need to be addressed. These include how much longer the approach can be maintained in view of the ever-more attenuated connection to any definition of Jewish identity on the part of those whom Chabad comes into contact with. Even if intermarriage can be winked at in the first generation, the practice begets children who themselves intermarry and then there is further intermarriage in the third generation. Is there any cut-off point for Chabad? If there isn't, the consequences will be enormous.

There is already in parts of Chabad more than a small scent of reaching out to non-Jews, that is to individuals who are not Jewish by any definition. Put otherwise, there are indications of Chabad regarding itself and marketing itself as a catholic or universal religion. This is evident in the public displays of the Rebbe's picture, in telethons and other fundraising activities, in drug programs and other projects.

Aren't these issues worthy of consideration and self-reflection? Or is it sufficient to ignore them or to treat them as evidence of hostility to Chabad?

Friday, January 06, 2006

Where Is Chabad Heading?

Chabad, the Lubavitch movement, is the Walmart of Jewish life, a mega-phenomenon that keeps growing at a remarkable rate by entering new and underserved areas, and by exploiting the vulnerability of existing service providers.

Growth provides the impetus and resources for additional growth. Walmart uses loss leaders to attract customers, the aim being to get them to buy profitable items and to further weaken and dishearten the competition. In Chabad there is the perhaps unintended defining of Judaism downward, the aim being to attract participants and to maintain for them at least a tenuous connection with Jewish life. In the process, there is often the further weakening of existing religious institutions as well as the acceptance - it is more than tolerance - of what should not be accepted in Orthodox Jewish life.

This aspect of Chabad was displayed recently at the annual gathering in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn of several thousand shlichim (the movement's field workers), an event for which the description "impressive" is greatly inadequate.

The keynote speaker was Alan Dershowitz, a choice that accords with the familiar societal instinct to idolize celebrityship. This choice was also antithetical to what Chabad should stand for. My point is not about Dershowitz, who can say and believe whatever he wants. It's for history to decide whether his extended 15 minutes of fleeting fame will leave even faint fingerprints on law, society or Jewish life.

IT IS WRONG and hypocritical for Chabad to highlight a person who has written nastily about Orthodox Jews, who has welcomed intermarriage in his family, and who has exalted marrying out. Any attempt to justify what was shameless is no more than sophistry, although it will further the process of self-deception that has already gone too far.

If this were an isolated incident it could be excused, though not defended, as a lapse in judgment. But Chabad is on a roll and, like with others on a roll, there is scant incentive for self-reflection, for a pause to consider where the movement is heading.

Chabad telethons and fundraising, and the acceptance of severe anti-halachic behavior in too many situations, add to the concern. Too much of what now has the Chabad imprimatur bears little resemblance to how the movement once operated.

Chabad is today world Jewry's largest organization, probably by a wide margin. In its ranks are people of intellectual weight, yet it is hard to find an internal discussion of the implications of the direction being taken, or the implications of the changed and highly-assimilated American Jewish landscape. There is no discussion of whether there are limits to permitting Chabad synagogue regulars to drive to shul on Shabbat, or of how to deal with the intermarried and their spouses and family members.

Why are these issues less relevant to Chabad than they are to the rest of American Jewry? Why is the issue of standards alive everywhere else in Jewish religious life, but not within Chabad?

MY HOPE is to encourage Lubavitchers to think about these questions. They must be asked and discussed, especially because so much about Chabad is meritorious. There are countless acts of kindness, as well as vital services provided to Jews across the religious spectrum who have nowhere else to turn. Chabad is rightly praised for its multitude of good deeds.

But if Judaism was merely a good-deeds religion there would be nothing to differentiate us from many secularists and people of other faiths. For all of Chabad's kindnesses, this is not what Judaism is primarily about. Our religion is about Torah and mitzvot, about obedience and limitations, and about maintaining our laws and traditions today so that they will be transmitted to the next generations.

As it grows, Chabad's options are in a sense limited by certain realities, primarily the wholesale Judaic abandonment that we are witness to, and which is accelerating. Increasingly, the movement operates in a framework of postdenominational Judaism. For the Orthodox, who - except when they travel or in special situations - are not the primary Chabad participants, denomination matters.

For Conservative and Reform Jews, affiliation now refers overwhelmingly more to a social rather than religious connection. Huge numbers of Jews identified by demographers as Reform or Conservative rarely show up in synagogue and their affiliation provides few clues to their religious practices and beliefs. In a word, denomination has lost much of its relevance.

CHABAD FLOURISHES in this environment by providing a low-cost brand of Judaism. It is low-cost in financial terms, which is another meritorious aspect. It is also, however, low-cost in Jewish expectations.

Participants in Chabad can observe very little and have no interest in adding to their performance of mitzvot. This may seem unfair, yet the attitude being conveyed by Chabad to a great number of its participants bears a resemblance to Reconstructionism. There are, of course, conventional Chabad synagogues and day schools, and they must not be discounted because they often fill gaps in our community's ability to adequately provide religious services.

Yet there is a vast network of institutions and programs that require little of participants and where deviance from Halacha is evident.

A Conservative leader once remarked to me that his movement made a mistake in the 1950s when it sanctioned driving to the synagogue on Shabbat. He said it should have emulated Chabad and allowed people to drive without giving formal approval.

Population shifts and the continued weakening of Jewish institutional life will give Chabad an abundant supply of new areas to penetrate. There is also an abundant supply of shlichim-in-waiting. I was recently told that there are more than 300 young men waiting for their opportunity to go into the field.

When that opportunity comes they will be faced with the collateral opportunity to define Judaism downward, to embrace the prevalent attitude of "anything goes" Judaism. They will also have the opportunity to reverse a disturbing trend.